Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Abigail Mentzer is a dancer's dancer. On top of her innate sweetness and lyricism, she also makes all the girls around her look good—in her handmade skirts. What started as a hobby four years ago has blossomed into a lucrative side business. This fall, Capezio's flagship store in New York will sell her Abigail Mentzer Designs in a trial run. Her skirts have done for dancers' bottom halves what Yumiko leotards did for the top.
How did you get into designing dancewear?
Martha Chamberlain, who was a principal with Pennsylvania Ballet, has her own costume company and she wanted a helper. She taught me make a couple things, which included a pattern for a skirt. I modified it a bit, cutting the sides a little higher, shortening it. Suddenly everybody wanted one—and skirts took over my life.
Why do dancers like them so much?
People tell me there’s nothing else like them. The fabric I use has a weighty flow to it when you dance. It doesn’t wrinkle so you can just throw it in your dance bag. The cut is higher on the sides to give a nice line of the leg. And it’s a little bit longer in the back so you get nice coverage on the popo.
What do you enjoy about designing skirts?
After six hours in the studio when you’re agonizing over whatever roles you’re doing or whatever pain you’re having, it’s a nice escape. In ballet, what we do is so fleeting. (Unless you have a video, and then you’re like, Ugh! I never like watching myself dance.) But when I make a skirt, I think, Look what I did, and Somebody’s wearing that! This makes me feel like I am capable of doing something other than ballet.
What’s been the most difficult part?
Learning the business side of it: the financials, how to keep track of my orders, receipts, taxes. It’s been a lot of Googling. What’s amazing is that I’ve found people are really willing to help if you ask. Steven and Janice Goodman, who are big supporters of PAB, have taken me under their wing and helped me with any strange questions or issues.
Any advice for other dancers interested in staring their own business?
Don’t doubt yourself. As dancers, we’ve been training to do one thing our entire lives. You start to think that’s the only thing you’ll ever be good at. But actually, we have a leg up on the real world: We learn fast, we take initiative, we’re smart. So go for it. I never thought I’d have a dancewear company. But it’s fantastic; I love dressing dancers.